What can Line of Duty tell us about corruption?

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Professor Heather Marquette, International Development
School of Government & Society, University of Birmingham


Like over 10 million people in the UK, I have been glued to my tv for the past six Sunday evenings for Line of Duty season five. Since 2012, Superintendent Ted Hastings, DI Kate Fleming and DS Steve Arnott from the fictional Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12) have been chasing corrupt police officers — ‘bent coppers’, as Ted calls them — dazzling us with their interrogation tactics as they close in on law enforcement links to OCGs (organised crime gangs).

I’ve spent the last twenty years researching corruption, including recent research on bribery in the South African police and, even more recently, on organised crime and development. Watching Line of Duty is practically research; like the police officers who are ‘hooked’ on the show, while I appreciate that not everything in the show is as it is in real life, it can help bring corruption research to life.

One of the most striking things about the featured ‘bent coppers’ is that none of them start out intending to be corrupt.  DCI Tony Gates (series one) starts out by so-called ‘laddering’, getting criminals to admit to other smaller crimes when they’re sentenced that are ‘taken into consideration’, as a way to boost crime success rates. In the same year this happened on our screens, five officers in Maidstone were arrested for doing this.

In real life, few people set out to be corrupt. It often happens incrementally and even accidentally. An award-winning advert for Tata Tea in India called on ordinary citizens to ‘jaago re’ — wake up — in the fight against corruption, warning that all the ‘little bites’ add up to big corruption. In Line of Duty, whether in the name of team solidarity or hitting government targets or feeding their own egos, these ‘little bites’ against integrity set all of the characters onto a path that leads them to AC-12 and, ultimately, to their own destruction. And, as research on corrupt informal networks in East Africa has shown, it’s easy to get ‘locked in’ once you’re on this path, no matter the consequences.

Dig deeper, though, and Line of Duty tells us something about what Lawrence Lessig calls ‘institutional corruption’.  An institution is said to be corrupted when:

There is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.

This is about the institution and not individuals. In other words, it doesn’t take bent coppers to make the police service institutionally corrupt. What it takes is for the service to stop fulfilling its intended purpose. In the UK, the mission of the police is:

To make communities safer by upholding the law fairly and firmly; preventing crime and antisocial behaviour; keeping the peace; protecting and reassuring communities; investigating crime and bringing offenders to justice.

Line of Duty presents a vision of a police service in the UK under significant pressure: to hit government targets, to provide seniors with good media opportunities and to suck up to your boss in order to be put forward for promotion. Staff are overworked, existing in a violent world where every callout could be their last.

And it’s not just the police; the whole justice system is fraying at the seams in Line of Duty. From prison wardens with their robotic ‘stating only either yes or no’, to the yawning, incompetent duty solicitor who sits idly by while an innocent and vulnerable young man wallows in prison, Line of Duty suggests a system that can’t effectively fulfil its purpose and risks losing public trust. This is why the work of AC-12 is so important; it’s about public trust in the law.

Yet a small storyline in series one shows better than any of the AC-12 scenes what institutional corruption really looks like. PC Karen Larkin is a young constable who is responsible for patrolling the rough Borogrove Estate. Soon into the series, she’s partnered with the even younger, eager new PC Simon Banerjee.  His enthusiasm for the job sits uneasily alongside her cynicism. In one scene, Larkin’s world-weary reaction to a burglar jumping from a third-story balcony is, “That’s just so many more forms to fill in”. She tries to convince Alf Butterfield, an elderly man on the estate who is arrested after striking a young thug who is part of a group threatening him, to just accept a police caution so that she doesn’t need to change the paperwork ID number. She allows Ryan Pilkington, the young thug who assaulted Alf (and who is working for the OCG), to go home knowing full well that there isn’t a responsible adult there to be with him. Instead, she wants to get to the fish and chip shop before it closes.

In all these scenes, PC Banerjee is there, looking on in disbelief and dismay. He can’t even properly patrol the neighbourhood he’s assigned to, because it’s been deemed too dangerous, and so safety protocol says that officers need to stay together near the car and in pairs. Shortages of personnel and resources, as well as the need to chase ever-changing targets aimed at press conferences rather than communities, means that he cannot fulfil the mission that he recently signed up to.

Like Tony Banks, Roz Huntley and all of Line of Duty’s bent coppers, it’s these ‘little bites’ that break down the integrity of the institution she works for that lead to Larkin’s cynical approach to getting through the day with as little hassle as possible, rather than working to make the community she’s responsible for safer.

PC Larkin has lost sight of the institution’s real mission, in a system that has become institutionally corrupt. While the theory suggests that individuals don’t need to be corrupt for institutions to be corrupt, it does make it easier for individuals to make that first small, corrupt decision that could just leave you bloody and one-handed in Line of Duty’s world.

In his final scene in series one, PC Simon Banerjee leaves PC Larkin to get her fish and chips while he goes off on foot patrol on the dangerous estate, on his own, in violation of safety guidelines. Yet his head is held high, his shoulders back, a smile on his face. He is finally doing what he joined the police to do — protecting the community, preventing crime, seeking justice and building public trust. It is as heart-breaking a scene as any of the other, more dramatic ones, illustrating better than any other the price paid for institutional corruption, without a bent copper in sight.


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